Civil servants make better decisions than elected officials, right?!

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This topic contains 8 replies, has 8 voices, and was last updated by  Peter Sperry 10 years, 2 months ago.

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  • #101876

    Brian Friel, in a piece titled “Political Hot Potato”, reviews a new book that challenges the notion that career government employees are better at steering our country than elected officials:

    Civil servants can make decisions that are better for the long-term good of the country than elected officials can, right?

    In a new book, public management expert Alasdair Roberts explores the rise and limits of that way of thinking, which he dubs in the title, The Logic of Discipline (Oxford University Press, 2010). The basic premise is democracies like ours have turned much of the nation’s major decision-making authority over to professional bureaucrats. They fear politicians will make the wrong decisions because they’re too focused on their own reelections. In addition to handing power to professionals, democracies also have created a variety of laws, rules and regulations designed to constrain politicians from making bad choices.

    The problem with turning over too much power to civil servants is whether a system that does so can be sustained in a democratic society. If not, then it’s setting up civil servants for failure. Roberts suggests that systems of discipline cannot be expected to make all the hard decisions that elected officials don’t want to make. They can be too inflexible to deal with a world where things change and government needs to be able to adapt rather than live within a rigid system of predetermined action. Elected officials might have to step up to the plate more often and use their discretion, rather than push decisions off to civil servants. Roberts also suggests ditching the words “depoliticization,” “autonomy” and “discipline.”

    What do you think? Who makes better decisions? Career civil servants or short-term politicians?

  • #101892

    Peter Sperry

    Ideally it is not a matter of one or the other making better decisions but making different decisions.

    In a well functioning democracy, elected officials and career civil servants have two very different jobs. Elected officials synthasize public opinion in order to establish public policies that reflect the will of the majority while respecting the rights of the minority. Career civil servants operate programs to implement those policies effectively and efficiently. The system begins to break down if the elected officials become so deeply involved in implementation that relatively uninformed public opinion forces out technical expertise in program operation. The system can also break down if career civil servants begin to use their control of program operations to advocate for or against public policy positions. Each group needs the other, Each should make an effort to understand the other. Practioners in one area should be able to tranistion to the other and add value in both areas. Each should avoid trying to do the others job.

  • #101890

    Henry Brown

    Agree with Peter:

    IMO it would be like saying a Pickup Truck makes for better transportation than a Mini-van. A old saying comes to mind “it is like comparing apples and oranges”.

    And you can add to the mixture the political appointees who also have a different agenda in the decision making process.

  • #101888

    Stephen Peteritas

    Hmmm I really struggle with this question. On one hand I’m a massive believer that power should be in the hands of people who don’t want it. Translation: If you run for office you want power and probably have so type of selfish motive. I know that view is very pessimistic but it’s normally how I feel. So in that scene I would much rather hand over decision making to people who are in the trenches and really have dedicated themselves to serve. But at the same time while elected doesn’t mean too much I think that having a say on who makes the decisions collectively as a group is very important.

    So basically I think civil servants have the capacity to make better decisions but I also want the ability to at some point yank them from their decision making role if I disapprove of their decision. So I guess lets just get back to the 1800s where you were a civil servant before you ran for office, (not that that doesn’t happen today but it seems like there’s a lot of lifetime politicians rather than lifetime civil servants).

  • #101886

    Ed Albetski

    I think think yes and no, depending from the POV. On day to day procedures and other decisions that need a background on how the agency does business, the career employee is the best source for an intelligent decision. A mirco-managing outsider with no institutional knowledge is a liability. Often they want to change the arrangement not because their idea is better but just because “we did it this way where I came from”. The upshot is the chiefs get miffed, retire or move on, the clueless exec is gone in four years and the agency is gutted of all experienced managers. A good new exec should observe the situation fully before bringing in the big changes.

    On the other hand if you have someone coming in with a mission from the administration, I think the key is communication from the exec to their top managers. If the exec describes the result they want and can listen to their managers’ ideas on how to achieve it, a lot can be accomplished. A good exec can let the managers handle implementation details and not interfere by “getting into the weeds”. It just takes trust and that takes communication on both sides.

    The politician sees only the “big picture” and their objective. The career managers focus on their piece of the whole, like the management theory story of the five blind men and the elephant. It would really help if politicians would appoint someone with some practical knowledge of an agency instead of some crony of theirs, a noted business person, or an ex-military type. Having worked in the Defense Department, I suspect a former supply sergeant would make a far better SecDef than a general…

  • #101884

    Scott Primeau

    I think Peter hit it on the head pretty well. Elected officials and civil servants have different roles.

    That being said, to some degree, civil servants are responsible for serving their respective elected official, who is responsible for serving the public. Civil servants can get caught up in their own agendas just as easily as elected officials. There’s a middle ground between doing what the civil servant thinks is best and what the public demands, but that middle ground isn’t always easy to find, and no solution is going to please everyone.

    At what point should civil servants or a govt agency give up what they think is best for what the public demands? Civil servants and elected officials can get caught adversely affecting the majority of their constituents in order to appease a very vocal, very small minority of disgruntled constituents.

    Well, I’m rambling, so I’ll leave it at that.

  • #101882

    Cleatis Grumbly

    I agree that these people “should” have different roles. I would equate the roles to the business world where you have a board of directors (Congress), a CEO that is put in place by the board, and then the rest of the staff who reports up through the CEO. The board should set some general policy guidelines and approve an overall budget and give some guidance on the general direction of the organization. The board also should have the right to question the budget and modify if they feel that the organization is not spending money wisely. If the CEO is not performing, the board removes them and brings in someone else to run the organization. This model would allow career civil servants to make the day to day decisions within some guidelines set by the politicians. This model works pretty well in the private sector and I think it should work for agencies also.

    However, this model breaks down if civil servants are not held accountable by their “board” for failing to meet their objectives and it also breaks down in the “board” overreaches and starts to get too involved in the day to day decisions. It is an interesting debate. In the business world, companies who are bad at figuring this out usually go under.

  • #101880

    Pam Broviak

    Peter did an excellent job explaining how it all should work. In successful communities that does happen. Unfortunately I used to work in a city where I witnessed some of the worst behavior and decisions from elected officials.

    This was because some of them only ran for the perceived status or to get one specific project done that directly benefited them or to get their kid hired by the city or take out a grudge against an employee. This makes it impossible for staff to continue to implement long range projects and ensure sustainability and success of the community. And because these elected officials publicly attack and ridicule staff, the employees eventually stop doing much hoping they remain under the radar.

    The end result of electing people who aren’t good decision makers is that it destroys the community. The public, who never attends meetings to witness this behavior, can never figure out why their community continues to degrade and why their children immediately move away when they become adults. For the community to succeed you really do need a balance.

  • #101878

    Kitty Wooley

    I’m in favor of balance; no one has a corner on truth or effective action.

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